Eight years ago, the Metropolitan Opera had a hit with director Julie Taymor's now famous production of Mozart's "The Magic Flute," thrusting opera into the age of Cirque du Soleil. Now San Francisco Opera is hoping for something similar with its own "Flute," a visually ravishing production designed by the ceramic artist and sculptor Jun Kaneko, which opened Wednesday at War Memorial Opera House.
There is no denying the imaginative power of this high-tech "Magic Flute," sung in English to a new translation by David Gockley, the company's general director. Fanciful and bursting with color -- a perfect candidate for 3-D streaming to movie theaters -- it is a grand confection, but with mixed results, leaning toward the cutesy and clever; Mozart as sit-com. It boasts some appealing singing, but only one marvelous performance, that of soprano Heidi Stober as the princess Pamina. Her voice is more than beautiful; she penetrates Mozart's depths.
For much of the production's first half, I felt as if I were meeting an old friend after a long absence: the familiar warmth and wellbeing are present, but you are aware of a change, a new vitality. That was the feeling as the orchestra -- superbly led by Rory Macdonald, the young Scottish-born conductor -- intoned the Overture's shadow-and-light harmonies. Instantly, the vast backdrops on stage began filling with Kaneko's software-generated animations: grids and rainbows of streaming lines, colorful patterns
Mozart's opera is many things: bawdy, whimsical, magical -- but delving, too, into death and darkness. This "Flute" does best with whimsy and magic. Kaneko's design -- encompassing sets, projections, costumes, lighting and many dancing animals -- creates a delightful magical landscape. It's like entering "Alice in Wonderland" through the keyhole of a Mondrian painting, with side trips to a Japanese temple. (The sinister priest Sarastro, who abducts Pamina, resembles a Lewis J. Carroll tyrant, transported to a mythic Kyoto palace).
If only Omaha-based Kaneko's goal of integrating the production's many elements -- the visual, the musical -- were uniformly achieved. It isn't, but where it works, it's wondrous.
Early on, we meet Tamino, the Egyptian prince whose quest leads to Pamina and true love. The role is sung by tenor Alek Shrader, whose opening aria -- appealingly crooned, like a great doo-wop love ballad -- is one of those weightless Mozart numbers. It is matched by Kaneko's slo-mo abstractions, gorgeous bubbles of slow-spinning color. Likewise, there's a tender duet between Pamino and chattering bird-catcher Papageno. Singing of life's "sweetest harmony," they are surrounded by warmly harmonized color-fields and patterns, embodying the song's message.
Let's not forget the blazing gowns of the Queen of the Night, Pamina's mother. They are a perfect match for her legendary (and legendarily difficult) coloratura flights. Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova executed them with brilliance, punching out mile-high notes with pipe-organ authority. Technically it was a tour de force, though without much emotive heat.
Overall, the second half of the production, as directed by Harry Silverstein, lost momentum -- and oddly, Kaneko's designs grew static. This "Flute" shirks its dark side, where Mozart and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder intimate Masonic mysteries and pose perplexing moral questions. It doesn't help that Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson, as Sarastro, sang as if he had just eaten a bowlful of cereal mixed with gravel -- or that tenor Greg Fedderly, as the priest's henchman Monostatos, indulged in Kids-on-Broadway antics.
I wish Gockley hadn't fed baritone Nathan Gunn (as Papageno) lines like these: "I'm more of a lover than a fighter" and "Brotherhood shmotherhood; I didn't ask for these tests." In the midst of his quest, Gunn -- full-voiced, but blandly chipper -- seemed to impersonate witless Steve Martin in "The Jerk." Still, he and vivacious soprano Nadine Sierra, as his beloved Papagena, poured on the joy for their love-nesting "Pa-pa-pa-pa" duet.
Don't go away before you read about the Queen's Three Ladies: soprano Melody Moore and mezzo-sopranos Lauren McNeese and Renée Tatum, all splendid. In the cameo role of The Speaker, bass-baritone David Pittsinger was soulfully regal. Finally, consider going to this new "Flute" simply to see Stober. Every time she arrives on stage, Mozart re-emerges in all his richness. In the end, we go to the opera to hear singing; this woman can sing.
Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069.
'The Magic Flute'
By Mozart, presented by San Francisco Opera, designed by Jun Kaneko
Through: July 8
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Tickets: $26-$330, 415-864-3330, www.sfopera.com